New York Times
October 19, 1998
Religious Circumcision in a Changing World
By NADINE BROZAN
ETHESDA, Md. -- Like any other group of professional colleagues meeting
for a conference, the members of the national organization of men and
women certified by the Reform Jewish movement to perform ritual
circumcisions had but one focus of conversation this weekend: shop talk.
Barely had the hors d'oeuvres been passed at the opening Sabbath dinner
on Friday in the Tragara restaurant here than the 11 men and 6 women
there who perform the rituals plunged into chat about the bris, or brith
milah, trading anecdotes, experiences and practical advice along with
the latest, or sometimes most ancient, bris jokes.
The sacred ritual they perform on a boy on the eighth day after his
birth signifies his covenant with God and membership in the Jewish faith
and is as old as the religion itself. The patriarch Abraham performed it
for his son Isaac and on himself.
But Sunday, though the meaning has not changed, the ceremony in some
circles has, as the religious person who performs it, the mohel, faces
some confounding social issues.
Participants at the conference asked, for example, how the mohalim (the
plural form for mohel, pronounced moyle) could make the rite as
meaningful as possible to a gay or lesbian couple who have given birth
to or adopted a baby. Does the child of an interfaith couple need do be
immersed in a mikvah, or ritual bath, or does the bris itself suffice?
What should the mohel do when families ask for a postponement so that
Grandmother can get an affordable air fare to attend? Is a religious
circumcision covered by insurance or managed care? How do mohalim use
the Internet to inform the public?
The Reform mohalim and their female counterparts, the mohalot, bear
little resemblance to the traditional Orthodox male mohel, who most
likely practices his calling full-time and permits little, if any,
innovation in the ceremony.
In the last 14 years, the Reform movement has developed its own group of
mohalim, requiring that they be either doctors or nurse practitioners.
Of the 17 mohalim and mohalot at the meeting of the National
Organization of American Mohalim-Mohalot, 16 were doctors with
specialties like obstetrics, plastic surgery or family medicine. One was
There are 206 mohalim in the United States, 25 of them women, who have
fulfilled the standards of the Brit Milah Board of Reform Judaism, a
joint program of three central institutions of the Reform movement:
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Union of American
Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
The development of mohalim within the Reform movement began in 1984, a
year after the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution
declaring the principle of patrilineal descent. That meant that children
born of interfaith marriages whose fathers were Jewish could be
considered Jewish, a dramatic departure from the matrilineal tradition
holding that only those born to a Jewish mother are considered Jewish.
That opened the door to new problems and new practices of circumcision
that had generally been performed either by an Orthodox mohel or by a
surgeon in the hospital. Rabbi Lewis M. Barth, dean of the Los Angeles
branch of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a
founder of the mohalim training program, said in a telephone interview
before the meeting, "There was concern that the Orthodox mohalim would
not have a respectful attitude toward Reform Judaism or that they would
not accept the Jewish status of a mother who had converted or a child
whose Jewry came through the father."
The training program -- two hours a week for 14 weeks -- was established
in Los Angeles and then offered in New York and other cities. "It
teaches the religious, historical, liturgical, and modern understanding
of the ceremony with the intention of preparing doctors to perform it,"
said Rabbi Barth.
At the end of the process, the students take exams and write personal
statements in order to be certified.
A similar but shorter program was offered in the Conservative movement
through the Jewish Theological Seminary and Rabbinical Assembly in 1989,
1990 and 1992. It has not been given since.
Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, associate executive director of the Rabbinical
Assembly explained, "We have filled our need." Sixty people completed
the program, four of them women.
The Orthodox movement has made no changes in the way it trains mohalim
or defines their roles. "There is no individualism in the service," said
Rabbi Dr. Moshe David Tendler, who is a professor of Talmudic law,
chairman of the biology department and professor of medical ethics at
Yeshiva University. "The basic service is the blessing by the mohel and
by the father."
Although Orthodox tenets do not permit women to serve as rabbis or
cantors, or even to read from the Torah, there is nothing to keep them
from being mohalim.
Citing a passage in the Shulhan Arukh, the ancient code of Jewish law,
that says minors, slaves and women can perform circumcisions, Rabbi
Tendler said, "This is not a function of being a leader of men. It is a
surgical procedure, but I know of no Orthodox woman who wants to be a
The women at the Reform conference said that rarely, if ever, had they
faced opposition on the basis of their sex. "Most people find it a
plus," said Dr. Marjorie Cramer, a Manhattan plastic surgeon who has
been performing circumcisions for 14 years.
When her rabbi in Brooklyn Heights suggested she enroll in the course,
Dr. Cramer said, she asked him, " 'Why would I want to do such a sexist
thing, a ritual only for boys?' I went to the course not knowing if I
wanted to do it at all. By the end of the first class, I was hooked. It
became the way to unite my spiritual life with what I do
In some situations, the mohel serves as an unaffiliated family's first
conduit into a Jewish community. "Sometimes they are not ready to make a
decision to affiliate with a synagogue yet," Dr. Barry Meisel, a
Westchester obstetrician and chairman of the Brit Milah Board of Reform
Judaism, said. "If we are warm and welcoming and give them a meaningful
experience with the bris, perhaps that will point them in that
That is not always an easy task, particularly when there are sensitive
personal issues at stake. The mohalim find they must be creative without
violating any tradition or principle.
Dr. Dorothy Greenbaum, a pediatrician with a practice in the Howard
Beach section of Queens, described three cases of Jewish couples who had
adopted babies who were not Jewish and wanted to insure that the
children would be accepted as Jews in all sectors of the faith.
"Each family wanted something included in their ritual that would
capture the spirit of mikvah submersion," Dr. Greenbaum said.
A mikvah is normally an integral part of conversion for adults and
"So I did something to construct a modern alternative to mikvah, even
though in the Reform movement bris itself is considered to be
conversion," she said. "I went back into tradition and found what Moses
had done when he anointed Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. I took
bottled water and touched the babies' ears, saying, 'May your ears
always be open to prayer,' the hands, 'to do acts of loving kindness'
and to the feet 'to walk in the path of righteousness.' "
Dr. Frederick Leboyer spoke about the need for gentle birthing practices in the 1970s, because of emotional harm caused by "birth trauma."
The circumcision trauma has impacted far more seriously on all of us mutilated guys. . . even though for many who deny this, the trauma is repressed but still influencing interactions with others and their emotional status. Women often ask: "What's wrong with men?" They don't realise many men are the victims of horrific bodily/sexual violation.
Because the violent abuse occurs before language development, it is often difficult for men to verbalise what's wrong with them, and to realise that the "circumcision trauma" is at the root of their psychosexual adjustment and interactions with others. In my view, many circumcised men are suffering from a lifelong chronic low grade post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), due solely to the violation caused by circumcision.
Gregory J. Boyle, PhD (Melbourne & Delaware) Professor of Psychology and Director Men's Health Research Centre Bond University, Gold Coast Queensland, Australia 4229
Tel. +61 75 5595-2525
How Can Circumcision Not Affect Penile Function?
As a pediatrician, I applaud the questioning of newborn circumcision. As medical students we were told the infant's immature nervous system did not process the pain of circumcision even though observation of the obvious distress and the shreiks of pain told otherwise.
The commonly stated notion that circumcision does not affect sensitivity or sexual functioning of the penis has never been demonstrated. How can 50% or more of the penile covering (including nerve-rich and erogenously sensitive tissue) be removed without adversely affecting function? The procedure was begun in this country to prevent masturbation and decrease "lust", but these reasons were muted and replaced by bland assurances of potential benefits and that the procedure was innocuous, with no factual research or study. The medical dictum of "First do no harm!" was never considered.
Parents who are not aware of the above facts, nor that this custom has come about only in the last two generations or so solely because of the urging and insistence of the medical community, now often demand the procedure because it is "tradition" or because dad is circumcised. Hopefully, they will reconsider.
Morris Sorrells, MD
For the Foreskin
by Stan Emerson
If your husband was circumcised, he will remain sexually mutilated 'til he dies. He has a partial, man-made, desexualized, and emasculated penis. If he was forced in infancy to undergo this senseless, violent, shameful, nature-insulting, dignity-robbing, dehumanizing and degrading anti-human practice (posing as medicine) then he has never known the joys and sexual
sensations that only the intact (not circumcised) man knows.
His primary sex organ -- his penis, not his brain -- was surgically reduced and permanently damaged anatomically, neurologically and physiologically. What pleasure he experiences now will fade soon, in his early 40's when the glans of his penis is deadened and desensitized he will lose interest in sex. Then too he might die in great denial especially if he casts aside the facts and painful truth about "routine infant circumcision" sexual mutilation and insists on or demands that his own newborn son be sexually
mutilated too (to match his own partial, wrecked penis of course).
15 Functions of the male foreskin:
1- Erotic pleasure via the ridged band and Meissner's corpuscles
2- Stores pheromones and releases them on arousal.
[Not only stores pheromones, but releases them into the air ; as the foreskin is retracted. An alert intact man has noticedhow intact men often quickly retract their foreskin and slip it
back into place over the glans. You can often smell the
released scent in the air after they do this. This could be a
kind of "territorial marking" and/or advertising of sexual
presence and/or seducing mechanism to arouse the female,
another male, or even the male himself.]
3- Stores and releases natural lubricants (harmless "smegma" and the clear,
pre-ejaculatory fluid) [Any intact uncircumcised) woman has more smegma in her genitals
than any intact man.]
[In this function, the foreskin gathers up and helps spread and distribute the clear, slippery, viscous Cowper's fluid over the glans, facilitating penetration and enhancing masturbation.]
[The natural penis is naturally lubricated: cheap or costly
artificial lubrication is not needed for masturbation and
4- Creates a visual signal of sexual arousal: the glans first
covered and then revealed, in its natural purple-red color, as
[Just as it is sexually arousing to see one's sex partner remove clothing, it is highly arousing to watch the handsome glans revealed as the penis becomes erect.]
5- Supplies skin to cover the shaft in erection and prevent
tightness, allowing effortless and physically non-traumatic
masturbation and intercourse.
6- Acts as a rolling bearing in intercourse and masturbation.
7- Prevents dyspareunia (painful intercourse).
[Unlike the natural, intact man who has tremendously movable shaft skin and foreskin during intercourse, the tightly
stretched, little movable or unmovable remnant of skin found on the dowel-like penis of the circumcised man can irritate, chafe
and dry the vagina of the woman during intercourse, making sex painful for her and for him also.]
8- Stimulates partner's genitalia, giving erotic pleasure.
9- Provides a seal against the vaginal wall to contain semen.
10- Prevents the glans from becoming keratinised [ from becoming essentially calloused], and keeps it soft and moist.
11- Protects the thin-surfaced glans against injury.
12- Protects the nerves of the glans, retaining their erotic function
13- In infancy, protects the urethra against contamination, meatal stenosis, and perhaps UTIs (urinary tract infections) also
14- Pigmented, it protects the unpigmented glans from ultra-violet radiation.
15- Vascular, it protects the less vascular glans against cold and
"NOCIRC and NOHARMM of Wisconsin/Madison".
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